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A Brief History of Waxed Canvas & its Whereabouts

Posted by David Hoole

A Brief History of Waxed Canvas & its Whereabouts

Waxed canvas. What an enduring and endearing material. It has lasted through the ages, yet in the modern era, remains relevant. The value was spotted early by a seafaring lot. Wet sails caught better wind, but wet sails are heavy. A coating of linseed oil helped, and turned the canvas a yellow color. When sails became tattered and needed replacing, the now weathered and handled material was crafted into rainwear, bags, and more. The iconic yellow slickers worn by modern commercial fishermen harken back to the days of linseed oil coated canvas outfits when the coating was new and fresh. When sails had been used season after season and lived a rough life over the deck of a ship they took on a different hue and texture — darker, more brown and black, a natural color emerged — Field Tan. A blend of waxes replaced linseed oil, as the improved coating lasted longer and didn’t become as hard and brittle with age and use. Waxed canvas remains hard, tough, stiff, and strong, almost like a metal…. it earned the nickname Tin Cloth and became a staple for rough-wearing outerwear and a great material for packs, pouches, and luggage.

Photo: Canvas sails of a ship during Duluth’s Tall Ship Festival 2019

Waxed canvas saw military use during the first and second world wars, shielding soldiers and their gear from the wind and weather on battlefields in Europe. Mr. Doppelt crafted travel bags for the G.I.’s to carry their toiletries overseas. They became fondly known as a Dopp Kit during World War II. The motorcycling crew adopted waxed canvas as rugged outerwear, and the material remains popular with gamekeepers in Europe especially in the U.K. where Barbour coats reign king of sporting field fashion. In the southern hemisphere, waxed canvas duster coats are ubiquitous on the Australian outback.

Photo: Humphrey, Milford J., 1909-1996. Men with truck at Good Harbor Civilian Conservation Corps camp, near Grand Marais, Minnesota. 1934. Courtesy of Cook County Historical Society

For us at Frost River on the shores of the tip of Lake Superior, our preferred use of waxed canvas is the making of packs and bags. There are few options with better character for canoe country expeditions in the northern boreal wilderness of Minnesota and Ontario than a trusty canoe pack. Sure there are new options these days with nylons of Cordura and waterproof PVC coatings.But handcrafted canvas canoe packs naturally strike a harmony with the woods, rocks, and water. It becomes a privilege to portage overland with a trusty waxed canvas pack. It’s still a lot of work, carrying a heavy load overland through tough country, but carrying something you like, an item that belongs with the area has benefit. It fits right in, not stands apart. The sound and feel is in unison with nature. Weather-tight from rain and sleet, abrasion-resistant from rocks, roots, branches, and brambles, the wax is deep in the weave and fibers of the canvas. Even in the bottom of a wet, sloshing canoe, water won’t wick up into the cotton canvas. Contents will remain mostly dry and unscathed (it’s still a good idea, and rarely hurts to use a pack liner). The quality of the canvas does change when truly wet, but it does not become saturated, just tougher, swelled, and more impervious to further wetting.

Photo: Early 1900s, paddlers with canvas pack, Courtesy of Archive and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth.

There really is unique symbiosis when an ages old material like waxed canvas gets carried into the woods or on a person’s daily travels. A sense of belonging is struck with the natural environment rather than a standing against it. A bit of a communion can take place that enables a person to bring a sense of peace out of the woods, thinking, “I had this pack way back in the wilderness and now it’s with me on my day-to-day travels…”. There’s a story there, a conversation waiting to be shared.

Photo: Early 1900s Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth.

An often-used waxed canvas item develops a patina, a weathering and a shine that speaks of experience. It’s not something that should want to be washed off or removed; it’s earned character. A trusted bag should have some spots and stains to prove it’s been somewhere and back again.

Everything we make at Frost River is held to the standard of a woods worthy Canoe Pack. We use the same materials, utilize the same know-how to make everything in the Frost River line right from our shop on West Superior Street in Duluth, Minnesota. You don’t need to portage a big canoe pack everyday to appreciate enduring quality. A briefcase, tote, purse, or backpack of the same character can carry a similar intent and feeling.

If you have something we’ve made then you likely understand and we thank you for your support. If you have yet to experience the satisfaction of carrying an item handmade from waxed canvas we invite you to give us a chance, we’d love to make something for you.

Thanks for reading. Stop by and see us sometime, we’d be happy to give you a tour of the shop.

Cheers from Frost River!